Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Orca chorale

I spent the past four days camping on the west side of San Juan Island, enjoying the warming weather and watching for killer whales. They had been no-shows on Thursday, and for most of Friday and Saturday that trend continued.

Camping next to us was a group of musicians who had come to the island that weekend as part of a symposium at Lime Kiln State Park on killer whales sponsored by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. The choral group, the City Cantabile Choir, was capping off the day by presenting a special requiem in honor of Luna, the young L-pod orca who was killed in a tragic accident this spring. The singers planned to gather in front of the lighthouse that evening and sing out to the whales.

This was the sixth year for the Orca Sing concert, and in past years the whales had come by during the performance, though not in 2005. It wasn't looking particularly promising that they would do so this year.

I had listened to the choir rehearsing that afternoon at the county park, and was struck by the immense beauty of the music. I decided I wanted to listen to them from the water, so at 7 I headed out in my kayak for the half-hour trip to Lime Kiln.

Just as I approached the lighthouse from the north, though, who should appear but a sizeable contingent of J pod, led by J1, or "Ruffles" as he's called (for the shape of his fin), possibly the most impressive (and certainly one of the most recognizable) of all the southern resident orcas. Ruffles is about 55 years old, near the upper limit of life expectancy for male orcas in the wild, so just seeing him each summer is considered a good sign. He's also immense and imposing.

I was fighting a northbound current, struggling just to get to the lighthouse, so simply staying in place so the whales could come by me took some work. Ruffles passed by far to my right, but others in the pod were swimming in the current closer to my kayak, so I did my best to stay in place while pulling out both my camera and my latest piece of equipment: a hydrophone I bought last month from Cetacean Research Technology.

I'd tested the hydrophone out previously but all I'd been able to listen to was boat noise. (Large ships, incidentally, produce tremendous amounts of noise underwater.) This was my first chance to listen killer whales.

No sooner had I dropped the mike into the water and slipped on the headphones than I was rewarded with a sound I'd heard before in recordings, but never in the wild: the rising and falling call of a killer whale, sounding distant and mysterious and haunting.

A few moments later, though, the calls came much clearer -- sharp, plaintive and distinct. Along with them came a series of buzzes and clicks, sounds I knew were the orcas' echolocation. (Some sample calls from J, K and L pods are available here.)

I scanned the waters and saw, shortly, that there were about six or seven whales moving past me about 150 yards away, mostly young males or females. They seemed to be moving in two clusters, three or four orcas in each group, and they were moving, it seemed, in a circle as they submerged and resurfaced around a large swell pattern in the strait's mildly roiling waters. They were lightly playing: rolling, making pectoral slaps, occasionally tail lobbing, and their contact with each other as they did almost looked like rubbing.

This was interesting, but even more interesting was what I was hearing through the hydrophone. Most orca calls sound like a rolling wave, rising and falling within a single call. I began hearing calls, though, that sounded more like a single note: a plaintive, almost melancholy note that lasted about a second and a half. And what was intriguing was that they came in succession: one note followed by another and another, slightly overlapping: one orca after another, in a series of four to six calls, all making the same note, like an undersea chorale. These were surrounded by the usual longer calls and the background buzzes and clicks.

Of course, I'm not really that experienced with orca calls -- especially not in a live setting -- and I expect that researchers hear this kind of thing all the time. Still, the raw experience felt as though I was being treated to a strange and haunting choral performance, and extended concert of sound.

I was so fascinated by all this that I just drifted with the whales, letting the current carry me back northward as I listened. When the whales began moving faster away, I stopped amd realized I had come almost parallel with the county park campsite where I was staying. Looking at my watch, I realized I'd never make even the tail end of the lighthouse concert, and I headed to shore. The next day, I apologized to Fred West, the conductor, for missing the show, but he seemed to understand, given the circumstances.

We saw more of Ruffles and his subpod that weekend; they came through late Sunday morning -- Fiona and I paddled out to see them, but they seemed to be passing by silently this time -- and again Monday in the early afternoon. They passed by, quickly, a ways from shore at the county park, so Fiona and I hopped in the car and headed down to see if we could get a look at them at the Lime Kiln lighthouse, and they did.

Watching them from shore in the clear light of day, moving efficiently past us as they drove out to the southern end of the island, it struck me that how we experience wild, mysterious creatures like killer whales has a lot to do with our own expectations of them.

You know -- we want to believe that the whales came by, for the first time in three days, to greet the singers on shore. We want to believe that they can somehow divine what we're doing and interact with it. And people experienced with orcas will tell you that these kinds of small coincidences, in fact, just keep mounting up with them: appearing or behaving in a striking way at a striking time. As though they can read our minds, or sing a chorale in imitation of one onshore.

Scientists know this is illogical, and in the end it's just another kind of anthropomorphism, projecting our own wishes onto a creature that in reality is perfectly neutral and oblivious to us. In our eagerness to embrace what we might share in common with these creatures, we too readily dispose of what makes them unique. We fail to respect the whales for their whaleness.

Still, none of that can change the reality of the actual experience and how it felt. It sounded like a chorus of angels, and I was blessed to hear them.

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